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THE SITUATION ROOM

Aviation Adventurer Missing; Failure in Iraq Report

Aired September 4, 2007 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a desperate search for one of the world's most famous explorers. Aviation adventurer Steve Fossett is the first person ever to circle the world solo in a balloon. Now his plane is nowhere to be found.
We're standing by for a news conference.

Major failure in Iraq. A damning report says Iraq has failed on most of the measures for success, including more Iraqi troops to stand up so American troops can stand on.

And John McCain calls it his straight talk. He's talking about his opposition to gay marriage. He admits he knew nothing about a phrase commonly used in the gay community.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He's nowhere to be found. At this very moment in Nevada, airplanes and several searchers are looking for adventurer Steve Fossett. He's the first person ever to circle the world solo in a balloon and the first person to fly around the world by himself without refueling. But yesterday Fossett took off in a plane, and that plane has simply vanished.

Our special correspondent, Miles O'Brien, an expert on aviation issues, is joining us on the phone.

Miles, tell us what we know about this disappearance.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it began at the Flying M Ranch in Nevada. That's in Yerington, Nevada. It's about 120 miles southeast of Reno, a ranch owned by Barron Hilton.

And Steve Fossett was flying a Decathlon. That's a small single- engine high-wing airplane, two seats, commonly used for aerobatic maneuvers.

We're told, however, that Fossett doesn't like to fly aerobatics and as such did not leave wearing a parachute, as is required by the FAA for anybody who wants to do aerobatics. Now, he left with about four or five hours of fuel in his tanks. In other words, full fuel tanks.

We are told he was headed to the south. But unclear, it might have been a sightseeing mission, so unclear if there was a specific destination in mind. He was expected back at that landing strip at the Flying M Ranch by 6:00 p.m. local time yesterday. He did not return, and that is when associates and friends sent out the warning calls and the requests for help.

Lots of people involved in the search right now -- the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, helicopters from the Naval Air Station at Fallon, Nevada, Nevada Air National Guard choppers, California Highway Patrol. We're told the weather was and is good in that part of the world. Of course, it's desert, it's mountainous, and what that leaves you is with a big mystery right now. What might have happened to that aircraft, where might Steve Fossett be?

We do know this -- this is an area that is commonly prized by people who are involved in soaring because of the mountain waves or thermal currents which lift off the mountains and provide lift for gliders. That can cause for some tricky flying at times.

I have been in some mountain wave situations before where it can cause a tremendous amount of turbulence. But at this point, whether that was a factor in this, way too early to say -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Miles, hold on for a second, because Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well. He's been looking into the intended path where Steve Fossett was planning on going.

And you're going to show us on the screen behind you.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let's get a little sense of reference here as we move in toward Reno, over here -- California is over on this side -- and the Flying M Ranch, which is down here. You can see the terrain around it.

A lot of this is very flat, very arid space. Sometimes you see car commercials shot out here, where they shoot this big open expansive with nothing around it. This is what he was flying over.

Let's go up higher and take a look at the area in general. If we put a 150-mile circle around this, you'll get a sense of how far that would be, and then beyond the yellow one is a 300-mile circle.

So if he's heading south here, he's heading into very rugged terrain if you fly down low. And I know from experience out in the West, this is big, open country, where if somebody gets lost or if their plane goes down, sometimes even if they have a good idea where this person is, it can take a very long time, Wolf, to locate that plane unless the transmitter beacon from it is working or unless there's some signal from the plane.

So, if, in fact, he's had some trouble, even if he headed south here, if you keep flying that way you get a sense of the terrain he was flying over. If you go down into one of these gullies or one of these hillsides, there have been searches where they were pretty sure they knew where the plane was. It takes a long time...

BLITZER: Tom, I want to go to Chuck Allen with the Nevada Highway Patrol. He's speaking about this story right now.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

CHUCK ALLEN, NEVADA HIGHWAY PATROL: ... with the National Guard, and we're here to brief the media on the search for Stephen Fossett. And I'm going to read the press release that was sent out to the media, and this should address some of the questions that may be lingering out there.

A lone pilot identified as famed aviator Steve Fossett, missing since yesterday, has not been located despite early search efforts by the U.S. Air Force, Nevada Wing Civil Air Patrol, in addition to private resources from the Flying M Ranch near Yerington, Nevada, the Naval Air Station Fallon, the Nevada National Guard and the California Highway Patrol. It has been reported by persons at the Flying M airstrip, which is very close to Yerington, Nevada, where the pilot took off yesterday morning that he was flying a Citabria Super Decathlon single-engine aircraft with the tail number of N240R.

Searchers were first notified late Monday that the pilot had departed from the private airstrip at about 9:00 a.m. Monday, planning to return by noon in order to leave the area. A formal search had been initiated Monday at 6:00 p.m. and has continued this morning at 7:00 a.m. from Civil Air Patrol mission base here in Minden, Nevada.

Six CAP aircraft have been launched with highly trained and well equipped crews of three each in order to do sophisticated grid searches of hundreds of square miles of terrain and areas that the pilot have seen. The Citabria Super Decathlon flown by Mr. Fossett is described as a blue and white with orange stripes and blue sunburst designs on the top of the wings.

The Decathlon is a well-known aircraft with a long history. It is a two-seat tandem tail dragger capable of aerobatic maneuvers. Since low altitude airborne search and rescue is inherently risky, the emphasis is always on safety, particularly in regard to winds aloft near mountainous terrain.

Civil Air Patrol, the official United States Air Force Auxiliary, is a nonprofit organization of more than 64,000 members nationwide. Volunteers perform search and rescue, homeland security, disaster relief, and counter-drug missions at the request of the federal, state and local agencies. CAP has been performing missions for America for more than 60 years.

And we'll be glad to take any questions and hopefully answer as many as you can.

QUESTION: Do we have any idea from his friends where he was going? Did he say where he was going? Do we know?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: According to his pilot and Barron Hilton's pilot, Steve took off toward the south and was going to fly southbound looking around for some dry lakebeds for some work he might have had planned for in the future.

QUESTION: Now, we're seeing some high winds today. Is the search effort continuing despite the winds?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is for the time being, but if they get too bad, we could have to suspend search operations.

QUESTION: Let me be clear on that. You have aircraft up at the moment?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One just took off, Ed.

QUESTION: OK.

Well, describe the conditions out there. You say they're not...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we've got moderate turbulence out there right now, and the nearer you get to mountains, you get a downslope effect where the winds come back up like that, and it can really bounce a light airplane around and hurt people.

QUESTION: Now, tell us about this plane. It wasn't his plane? It belonged to the ranch?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As I understand, that's the case. And it was a Citabria Super Decathlon.

It's a well-known airplane. Very durable, and a lot of people fly them around here. And it's an enjoyable little aerobatic airplane, although I understand Mr. Fossett did not care for aerobatics, so it's unlikely he would have been doing anything like that.

QUESTION: This was just an out and back trip, a recreational trip almost?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just an out and back excursion. And he had more than enough fuel on board, so that shouldn't have been an issue either.

QUESTION: But why didn't -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, we've got -- we've got bad conditions today to search for him, but what were the conditions like yesterday?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The conditions were optimal yesterday. They had more than 10 miles visibility. And if not calm winds, then very light, variable winds.

QUESTION: Why didn't he file a flight plan? Isn't that kind of procedure, or is that uncommon?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, it's not uncommon. In fact, when you're flying out of a private airstrip in a remote area like this, it's not common to call in and file a flight plan, especially if you don't plan on being gone for very long. It's not like if you were flying out of Reno, Tahoe.

QUESTION: Where are you centering the search at this point? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In an area to the south and east of the ranch there, about 30 miles southeast of Yerington. Not any further than Bishop, California.

QUESTION: How many aircraft do you have up or will you have up?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have 13 aircraft in the air right now.

QUESTION: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're committing maximum resources to this effort.

QUESTION: Is it surprising to you that someone of his experience and background is missing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, people of his experience and background, sometimes they like to go out push the envelope a little. Although as I understand from his pilot, he was actually a very conservative pilot when he wasn't in some ground -- record-breaking effort.

So, you know, it's hard to speculate.

QUESTION: So do you call this a rescue mission, a recovery mission, a search...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As far as we know now, it is still a rescue mission. Until we have more information, it will remain that.

QUESTION: What do conditions like this mean for the searchers in the plane? I mean, how does it limit their ability?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It gets really rough out there, Ed. Try and imagine on a really bumpy day when you've been coming into Reno and the winds have been like this, and you're looking out the window and trying to spot something on the ground. It can be tough. And when you're even nearer to the ground like our crews are, you can get your heads bounced off the ceiling of the airplane pretty easily.

QUESTION: Do you have any leads at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're following up on some electronic data, but as yet, I can't speak to that.

QUESTION: Did that plane have -- I don't know what you'd call it in a smaller plane, but like the equivalent of a black box or some kind of a signal system in it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It has an ELT. That's a locator system that can be picked up by satellites.

QUESTION: And have they gotten anything from that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not sure about that right now, so, again, I can't speak to that issue. QUESTION: Has this ever happened with him before? He's kind of a daredevil, I guess, or an adventurer, at least.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From my conversations with his pilot this morning, no.

QUESTION: His pilot, is this someone that he flew with or...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. That flies his airplanes for him.

QUESTION: They became alarmed I guess, when, last night? Can you take us through a timeline?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. He was supposed to return. He had a hard departure date of shortly after noon yesterday. He took off shortly after 9:00.

When he didn't return by noon, they launched some of their aircraft from the Flying M and did some preliminary search. When they didn't come up with anything, they, of course, notified the Office of Emergency Management here in Nevada, and as standard operating procedure, we proceed to do complete ramp checks of any airstrip in the area, make sure that somebody didn't just land and, you know, they're without a cell phone that's working or something.

So then last night it got, of course, too dark to search, and we were out here at daylight ready to go. And we've -- as I said, we have 13 aircraft in the air now, plus ground crews.

QUESTION: Did he have any radio communication with his crew? When is the last time they heard from him? What did he say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As I understand, he did not have any radio contact with the people on the ground at the Flying M after he took off. He had full radio capability though.

QUESTION: OK. So you've got aircraft up. You've got ground crews. But with only a vague description of where he was headed when he took off. I mean, you really don't have...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well...

QUESTION: How are you focusing the search for him?

BLITZER: All right. We've apparently lost our satellite transmission from Nevada, but we're getting some important details on the search for Steve Fossett, 63 years old, the adventurer.

Miles O'Brien was carefully listening. He's our expert on aviation.

And Miles, give our viewers a sense of what you picked up, because it looks like it's an incredibly risky rescue operation right now given the winds and the mountainous terrain.

O'BRIEN: Yes. And, of course, as they pointed out, safety first in all this. And gosh, you know, having just endured that mining tragedy nearby, we are reminded of the risks that the rescuers take.

But Wolf, one thing I wanted to point out -- I was just chomping at the bit. I wish I could have asked a question there.

What she said was we have gotten some sort of electronic information which we're trying to verify. None of the reporters followed up on it. Shame on them.

That's an important little tidbit. I'd like to know what she's talking about there.

Basically, a plane like this would be quipped with what's called an ELT, an electronic locating transmitter. It is designed to be tripped off and transmit a little whoop, whoop, whoop, like that. It sounds like a siren on a certain frequency which pilots listen to -- 121.5 is the number, for what it's worth.

Pilots like me, I fly all the time with that frequency tuned in just in case you might hear one of those things going off. Now, usually what happens is it's because a student had a hard landing and it tripped off that ELT, the accelerometer, and knocked it into activity.

There are, however, more advanced ELTs in newer planes which have the capability of talking to a satellite and providing a GPS fix for those electronic locator transmitters. Now, if, in fact, this plane was equipped with one of those newer versions of the ELTs, transmitters with the satellite capability, what people in this business describe it, they say it takes the search out of search and rescue.

So, more likely -- I don't know the age of this aircraft, I don't have it right in front of me -- more likely, it's the older version which just broadcasts on a frequency. And you have to be in radio range in order to hear it.

Now, if for some reason that aircraft is in a canyon or shielded by mountains or whatever, you have to be practically right on top of it to hear that whooping noise. So it's truly potentially here a needle in a haystack.

BLITZER: Because you would think in this day and age of GPS systems on automobiles, you would think that aircraft would automatically have that kind of location device.

All right. Hold on a second, Miles, because we've re-established our satellite transmission with the news conference and I want to go back there.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

QUESTION: But if you're in a light plane like that, I mean, that's probably the last thing you're thinking that you're ever going to do is jump out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, there you go. That's kind of the case. And if you're just going to go for a little joy ride and take a look at some things with a camera, perhaps, you're not think being bailing out, obviously.

QUESTION: And this is a plane that he could put down in a lot of places?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pretty easily. You know, if you've got a dry lakebed, you could probably put it down. And a guy as skillful as he is, yes, I'm pretty certain he could.

QUESTION: He was looking at dry lakebeds? Was he planning to land and take off again?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, not that I understand. I was told that at some time in the future he might consider attempting a world land speed record and, therefore, he was looking for sites that he might use for testing.

QUESTION: I see. OK.

QUESTION: The winds -- how strong do the winds have to get before it gets dangerous for you guys to keep searching? I mean, they're pretty gusty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're gusty.

QUESTION: What is your cut-off point?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we don't have a specific cut-off point. When the crews out there start telling us that they're getting bounced up and down, they're going to let us know, because nobody wants to be a thousand feet above the ground and bounced right into some granite.

QUESTION: What would you say they're blowing at now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That would be sheer guesswork on my part, which is irresponsible.

QUESTION: Could you kind of describe a little bit the search area, where it is and (INAUDIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, you have got a lot of high desert terrain out there, very dry, a lot of sagebrush, dry lakebeds, as I said. But you've also got some mountain peaks out there, and they're pretty rugged. Not really tree-covered, to speak of, but there's a lot of nooks and crannies that we have to look at.

BLITZER: All right.

We're going to break away from the news conference. We're going to continue to monitor, though, what they're reporting, what they're saying.

I want to go back to Miles. Miles O'Brien has been listening very carefully. How important in terms of this rescue operation is the daylight? Because there's a few more hours obviously in Nevada right now before it starts getting dark.

O'BRIEN: Well, a couple things.

First of all, once again, safety, safety, safety. The rescuers, if they're really coping with gusty mountain wave conditions, you can easily lose a thousand feet of altitude in a heartbeat if those conditions are such that the winds are slamming a small aircraft down. So they have to be very careful because they're flying very low. That's the first thing.

Now, there is certainly technology. These devices, these infrared devices which pick up heat signatures, which allow searchers to search well beyond darkness and have that capability, and given the armada of aircraft that are up in the air right now and all the capability from the military, that kind of equipment will surely be brought to bear.

It's important. If he's in the desert -- and no doubt he was doing his two-or-three-hour jaunt in the desert -- I doubt he brought a lot of water with him. And so this is a situation where if he -- you know, for whatever reason, if he had to put that airplane down and he's in the desert, they do need to get to him very quickly.

He's a pretty resourceful guy. He was involved in a very significant balloon crash on one of his record attempts and lived to tell that tale.

Of course, that was one of his word record attempts that came with all the safety support team that he so methodically plans for whenever he stages such an attempt. In this case, if he's on the desert floor right now, he's going to have to be using some of his own resources in order to make himself known to all those searchers looking for him.

BLITZER: And we know he's a very talented, very creative, very intelligent guy. And we're not going to watch this story, Miles. Stand by. We're not going to go away from it. We're going to make sure we get all the latest information.

A lot more coming up on the search for Steve Fossett, the adventurer, 63 years old, whose plane has gone missing in the Nevada desert.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He has got "The Cafferty File" for us.

Welcome back, Jack. And I know you're praying for Steve Fossett like all of us are.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. Thanks, Wolf.

More and more Americans are defaulting these days on their home loans, and as a result, credit card companies are ramping up efforts to sign up these financially troubled customers. This is according to a report that was done by market research group Mintel International.

Credit card offers to subprime customers, those with bad credit, jumped 41 percent in the first half of this year when compared with the first half of a year ago. Over that same time, credit card solicitations targeting customers with good credit actually declined more than 13 percent.

Subprime borrowers are usually charged higher interest rates and tend to make minimum monthly credit card payments. Many of these borrowers are turning to the credit cards now because they've already tapped into their home equity for cash and now can't keep up with those rising home mortgage payments, especially those teaser rates as they're being adjusted upward.

This creates a much higher monthly payment for many homeowners. And it's expected over the next year a couple of million people are going to lose their homes to foreclosure.

So the question this hour is this: Why are the credit card company pursuing people who have bad credit?

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com, or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

A sobering assessment says Iraq is failing. That's the conclusion of a new government report. It says Iraq has failed on most of the measures for success.

What does it mean for the prospect of U.S. troops leaving Iraq anytime soon?

What a difference a few decades make. We have videotape -- you're going to want to see this -- of Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel. There he is from 30 years ago. The man who now stings his opponents with biting criticisms said he's not a maverick.

We'll speak about it. Mike Gravel standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And what does Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore think about a potential presidential bid by her husband? She's now told an interviewer.

We're going to tell you what she said.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Today, major worry over a damning report. It says Iraq has failed on most of the measures for success.

The Government Accountability Office looked at 18 benchmarks for political and security progress. Of that number, 11 have not been met, four have partially been met, only three have been met, only three of the 18.

The grade for disarming militias, failure. For reducing sectarian violence, failure. And for increasing the number of Iraqi troops to stand up so U.S. troops can stand down, failure. One item that was met is establishing all planned joint security stations in Baghdad.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's watching all of this on Capitol Hill.

So, how are lawmakers, Jessica, reacting?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Democrats are calling this report damning. There's that list of failures, and they point out this report is dramatically more negative than a White House report on Iraq released earlier this summer. And Democrats are questioning whether the Bush administration is giving Congress misleading information about Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice over): The report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office finds Iraq has failed to meet at least seven different benchmarks, each of which got a rosier assessment from the White House earlier this summer.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: These discrepancies, nevertheless, raise questions about the information that we're receiving from other sources about the war in Iraq.

YELLIN: Stinging words coming just a week before the White House releases its make-or-break report of Iraq General David Petraeus.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The president can't hide behind the generals. This is his war. He's responsible for the mistakes and the missteps that leave our troops mired in a civil war with no end in sight.

YELLIN: In testimony, the head of the GAO says they found...

DAVID WALKER, GAO, COMPTROLLER GENERAL: Clearly, the least progress has been made on the political front. I think you have to say it's dysfunctional. The government is dysfunctional.

YELLIN: To Democrats, this proves the surge has failed since the strategy was intended to give the Iraqi government breathing room to achieve political progress. But Republicans are withholding judgment today. They say they have yet to receive the one report that matters most.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: There are a number of reports, but all reports are not equal. The report that is written into law are the reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Those reports will be before the Congress next week.

(END VIDEOTAPE) YELLIN: Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made news this morning, Wolf, when he also said that the U.S. should be prepared to have long-term troop deployments in the Middle East to protect the U.S. from the twin threats of Iran and al Qaeda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is one report. There are a bunch of other reports coming out in the next few days and next week. So people are getting -- I guess anticipating a lot more information about the progress in Iraq.

YELLIN: It's nonstop reports up here on the Hill. General Jones releases one on the Iraqi security forces on Thursday, and next week it's Petraeus and Crocker on Monday and Tuesday.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin on the Hill for us watching all of this. She's going to be very busy in the coming days and weeks.

He's now a presidential candidate, but what did the Democratic former senator Mike Gravel think about running for the White House 30 years ago? We have some videotape that we've just found. You're going to want to see it.

Mike Gravel is here live in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll show him the tape, we'll get his reaction.

Stand by for that.

And John McCain gets into it with a 16-year-old. The Republican presidential candidate even calls the high-schooler -- and I'm quoting now -- "a little jerk."

We'll tell you why.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He's outspoken about the war, highly critical of the Bush administration, even has some choice words for members of his own party.

But, many years ago, Democratic presidential candidate, then Senator Mike Gravel, didn't consider himself a maverick. The former senator is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

MIKE GRAVEL (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: All right. Our bureau chief, David Bohrman, found the videotape. His father, Stan Bohrman, used to host a radio show and a TV show in Los Angeles.

And I want you to watch, together with all of us, this little clip, 1971. You were leading the charge against the draft, the military draft. You were among those leading the charge against the war in Vietnam. And this exchange occurred between you and Stan Bohrman.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1971)

STAN BOHRMAN, HOST: How long can you talk, though?

GRAVEL: I'm prepared to talk for four years. I have got four years left in my term.

BOHRMAN: God love you, Senator.

(CROSSTALK)

BOHRMAN: Are you ever planning on getting into -- are you planning on running for any office higher than U.S. senator, seriously?

GRAVEL: I enjoy the Senate very, very much.

BOHRMAN: Now, come on, no -- no couched political answers. Are you ever going to run for the presidency?

GRAVEL: Well, here, I will be very candid with you.

BOHRMAN: What a man.

GRAVEL: It would be very foolish for me -- would be very -- very foolish for me to answer that question straight on.

BOHRMAN: Why?

GRAVEL: Well, it's just not politic, and you have to, again, operate within the system of -- of the political...

(CROSSTALK)

BOHRMAN: Why? Why? I keep asking -- you know, you are a maverick. You are a man who doesn't believe in operating within the system.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAVEL: No, I'm not a maverick.

I think it's an art. And you -- you get to the edge, but you don't fall off the precipice, and you stay within the conventions of the system, but you push the system in the direction that it should be going.

And what I think is very important is to push the system into a more representative direction. We have had technology overtake the executive part of our government and make it oppressive. But now, like them taking this example with the electronic medium, we can return this system of government to a town meeting, the process where everybody gets involved, where the people who make policy are the people who suffer policy. That's a very important facet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, there he is. I see you still part your hair the same -- the same place.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But it's a little bit lighter.

But what do you think? You know, you look back on that moment in history in 1971, still at the height of the Vietnam War. When you were asked by Stan Bohrman, "Why not run for president?" you decided not to run then.

GRAVEL: Well, I was right in the middle of a filibuster. And...

BLITZER: A filibuster to do what?

GRAVEL: To end the draft, to end the draft. And, so, it would have been unseemly.

I would say that that was just before I got the Pentagon Papers, because that changed the whole dynamic of the filibuster that took place, and certainly would have commanded Stan's attention, had that taken place.

And, in talking to his son, I know that Stan got involved with Dan Ellsberg probably in the fall. And, so, I have asked him to look for more tapes where he was interviewing me.

But I went through Los Angeles a great deal, because I liked California very, very much. Still do.

BLITZER: And you were the senator from Alaska.

GRAVEL: That's right.

BLITZER: How did your constituents, in those days in Alaska, like what you were doing?

GRAVEL: It was a mixed bag. There was a lot of people who were conservative. They were -- they have got large military bases. And, so, it -- it was a mixed bag. It was not a...

BLITZER: So -- so, you got a lot of grief for trying to end the draft or for -- end the war?

(CROSSTALK)

GRAVEL: Well, the thing that really did it was the release of the Pentagon Papers. Boy, I will tell you, that really disturbed a lot of people, that they thought that, for some, I was a traitor.

All I was doing was just trying to show the American people that the presidential administrations, three of them, lied to the American people in order to get us in and continue that war.

And that's not unlike the situation we face today, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, you seem -- you seemed -- correct me if I'm wrong -- and this is, what, 36 years ago -- a lot calmer than -- than at least some of the little clips we have seen in the debates and elsewhere.

Were you more mellow then? Have you gotten a little bit more agitated over these years?

GRAVEL: Well, I was a little more comfortable then, for the very simple reason I was in office. I wasn't sort of like a salmon swimming up -- upriver. It was very difficult.

This campaign is difficult because of the lack of resources. The message is still the same. And that's what really pops out. So, I would say that, no, I'm going to be more mellow. It's just that a couple things set me off, particularly the war, and the way the other presidential candidates are handling it.

They could end this war. They could end it right now, but they choose not to. They choose to be led around by the nose by the likes of a George Bush.

BLITZER: Which, in your opinion was a bigger blunder, the Vietnam War or the war in Iraq?

GRAVEL: I think the war in Iraq. The consequences of Iraq are a lot more serious.

We're talking about -- Vietnam was a backwater. Now, it killed a lot more people, but -- three million Southeast Asians, 58,000 Americans. But the Iraq War is considerably more significant. We have destabilized a major portion -- the numbers of Iraqis, it's -- I'm sure it's over a million now. Before it's all said and done, who knows where it all goes.

BLITZER: Senator Gravel, thanks for coming in and reminiscing a little bit about a long time ago.

GRAVEL: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The presidential campaigns are kicking into high gear, but there's a wild card. A look at the Fred Thompson factor, that's coming up.

Also, could there be another late entry, this on the Democratic side? Tipper Gore says she would support a run by her husband, again.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's the day after Labor Day, and, as expected, the presidential campaigns in both parties are kicking into very high gear.

CNN's Candy Crowley is on the campaign trail herself in New Hampshire, looking at some of the latest developments out there.

What's going on, Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you said, Wolf, it is kicking into high gear here.

You know how they are fond of saying that, in politics, a week can be a lifetime? Well, you can understand that how, since January, the nine months have seemed like eons, especially for the senior senator from Arizona.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And our country was...

CROWLEY: In politics, John McCain is the September surprise, January's presumed front-runner struggling now to be a player. His position on immigration turned off conservatives. Independents don't like his support of the war. His funds are limited, and now a new entry.

Et tu, Fred Thompson?

MCCAIN: As you know, he and I are -- have been good friends for many years. And I welcome him to the race.

CROWLEY: Thompson gets in Thursday. The former senator and "Law & Order" actor is stealing the show and threatening to shake up, but not settle, the Republican race.

AMY WALTER, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": Fred Thompson changes the dynamic, in that he could coalesce the conservative base. That would probably hurt Mitt Romney the most. It could leave, then, Rudy Giuliani almost with the sort of moderate Republican base to him.

CROWLEY: Camp Romney bets he can hold his ground, noting that Romney has a lot of money, nine months, and many miles on the newcomer.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's nothing that can substitute for the face-to-face time that you get to spend in election -- in an election year.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) CROWLEY: If he can hold off Thompson, Romney looks for early- state victories to help him unravel Rudy Giuliani, who holds a steady, but not upward-bound lead in national polls. Giuliani sells himself as the man best suited to combat terrorism and most likely to beat Hillary Clinton.

Steady as she goes, Clinton has a face that says change, a resume that says experience, and poll numbers that say undisputed front- runner, who has, by the way, some heavy-duty reinforcement.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CROWLEY: She threatens to run over chief rivals John Edwards, and Barack Obama, whose fall imperative is to prove he's got the chops to run the country.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People know me in terms of my name, but they get a sense that I have sort of popped onto the scene two years ago, as opposed to knowing the track record, of working as a civil rights lawyer, as a community organizer, as a state legislator.

CROWLEY: Pounding the populist road to the White House, John Edwards has focused his efforts on early-state victories to remove the aura of inevitability the Clinton campaign is so busy putting together.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Further complicating the ability to look into the political process is the calendar. It is still unsettled, said one camp not in first place, and it could make all the difference in the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy on the scene for us in New Hampshire, where she's going to be spending a lot of time, Iowa as well.

Eight Democrats are running for president, and, as of Thursday, we are going to have nine Republicans. Is there room for more? Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, takes a closer look. That's coming up.

Also, John McCain jabs back at a student who confronts him about his age.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are two people not running for president, but their names keep coming up in the presidential campaign. That would be Al Gore and Newt Gingrich. Both of them have very high visibility. But, if they did decide to run now, would it be too late?

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's watching this story for us. Bill, is there room for even more candidates right now?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it's the rule of the Thanksgiving dinner table: There's always room for more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Eight Democrats and eight Republicans are running for president, plus one more Republican set to get in this week. Is there room for more?

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't have plans to be a candidate again.

SCHNEIDER: Tipper Gore told "Vanity Fair" that, while her husband has not made any moves to suggest he's running, if he does decide to run, she would get on board.

Two-thirds of Democrats say they're satisfied with the candidates they now have. Sure, Democrats who like Bill Clinton may also like Clinton's vice president, but they have already got Clinton's wife. So, why Gore?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: There's so many questions out there right now about the current crop of candidates seeking the White House. Even though we do have front-runners on each side of the aisle, they could be knocked off at any time.

SCHNEIDER: The question about the Democratic front-runner is whether she's electable. Voters say yes, by better than two to one. Some Democrats see Gore as an insurance policy. They feel he's already proved he can win, even if the Supreme Court didn't go along.

Republicans are not so happy with their field. Nearly half of them want more choices.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: If there's a vacuum, and if we need somebody who is able to debate Senator Clinton, then I will consider running in October. If the vacuum has been filled, I'm happy to not run.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans looking for a reliable conservative who can win are hoping that vacuum will be filled this week.

FRED THOMPSON, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I don't have any big announcements to make here tonight, but I will just say this. I will just say this. I plan on seeing a whole lot more of you. How about that?

SCHNEIDER: Most voters don't know much about Fred Thompson. They do know something about Newt Gingrich, but it's not very favorable. So, the search goes on.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCHNEIDER: Al Gore and Newt Gingrich have one big advantage. They don't have to introduce themselves to the voters. Them, we know -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much. We will watch this campaign trail every step of the way.

John McCain with some blunt, but lighthearted words on the campaign trail. Is McCain returning to the form that helped him win the 2000 New Hampshire primary?

And a new book just out about President Bush revealing his softer side, I will talk about it with Paul Begala and J.C. Watts. They're standing by live for our "Strategy Session" -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: At a forum in New Hampshire today, 71-year-old Republican presidential candidate John McCain was asked by a student if he's too old to be running for the White House. McCain responded with some self-deprecation, followed by some of his trademark straight talk.

Let's go our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

We will play a little clip of -- of how the president -- the presidential candidate responded to this 16-year-old.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you ever worried that, like, you might die in office (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Alzheimer's or some other disease that might affect your judgment?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People will judge -- will judge by the vigor and the enthusiasm associated with our campaign. Every campaign I have ever been in my life, I have out- campaigned all of my opponents. And -- and I'm confident that I will.

And thanks for the question, you little jerk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: He was being funny, I -- I think. I -- I have known Senator McCain for a long time.

But it was cute.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It was great. That is what McCain needs to do more of. Let McCain be McCain. Nobody thinks he was really insulting that kid.

And, by the way, nobody, I think, who has been around him at all -- and I dealt with him some when I worked in the White House for President Clinton -- would ever doubt his intellectual rigor or his physical vigor. Those are not the problems.

In fact, nobody articulates the wrong policies with more intellectual coherence than Senator McCain. He's way ahead of the Bush White House on how he defends this god-awful war. So, chalk one up for McCain. It's a good day for him on the trail.

BLITZER: What do you think, J.C.?

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I -- it -- it probably -- I probably -- I probably would have handled it a little differently than that. But that's John McCain.

I -- I think one of his strengths is, what you see is what you get. And that is not -- that's not abnormal for John.

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS: So, it's -- that's John being John.

BLITZER: I think a few more of those moments could help him on the campaign trail.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: There's no doubt about that.

Here's a quote from this new book. We are going to be speaking in the next hour Robert Draper, the author of "Dead Certain," a new book about the Bush presidency that's just out today.

I'm going to read to you from the book: "Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency. This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity. I have got God's shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job. I will bet I have shed more tears than you can count as president."

That's a quote from George W. Bush in an interview he granted the author, Robert Draper.

It's -- it's a part of President Bush that we don't see, the emotional side, where he's visibly crying.

I don't know. Have you -- have you ever seen him cry?

BEGALA: No. No. I don't want to. And forgive me if I don't join in his pity party. The tears he shed are nothing compared to the tears of the moms and the dads and the wives of -- of the men and women who have been killed in combat because of this god-awful war that I believe and most Americans believe that he lied us into. It's a really unseemly thing for him to be whining about how hard he's got it.

And I think this book will be very revealing. I can't wait to see your interview with -- with Draper. And I want to read it, because, finally, a journalist has gotten him to open up. I suspect Democrats won't like -- well, Americans, frankly, won't like very much what they see when they see the real President Bush.

BLITZER: What do you think?

WATTS: Wolf, I believe the presidency is probably one of the most -- loneliest jobs in the world.

I don't care if it's Bill Clinton, if it's -- if it's George Bush, if it's Ronald Reagan. It's -- it's a lonely job. And I think there are times that -- I have seen the emotional side of the president, and I think he does hurt.

BLITZER: You have seen him cry?

WATTS: I have seen him tear up. I -- I hadn't seen him just out and out cry.

But, you know, there are some difficult parts, difficult moments in being the president of the United States, when you have got to go and meet those mothers. I think he hurts. You can't hurt as much as those moms that have lost their children, but I think the president does hurt over that. Any president would agonize over that.

And to say that, you know, it's disingenuous or he lied or he got us into that, I -- I think it's just unfair to say that about any Republican or Democrat president.

BLITZER: Well, we have got to leave it there, because we're out of time. Guys, thanks very much, Paul and J.C., for coming in.

Still to come, Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.

Also, allegations China hacked into Defense Secretary Robert Gates' computer system. These are very sensitive, potentially explosive claims. We're going to tell you what is going on. That's coming up.

And controversy over a school in New York. It will teach Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. This is a public school we're talking about. We're going to tell you why some people are deeply worried.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Solicitations from credit card companies to people who have bad credit are up 40 percent year over year. So, the question with asked is: Why are the credit card companies pursuing people who have bad credit?

Bill in Florida writes: "They make money on the backs of those who need the credit most. The rates are higher. They might falter in a payment, where they can then double the interest rate that is charged."

Rick in Pennsylvania: "The banking lobbyists got their Republican employees to pass laws doing away with bankruptcy in relation to credit cards, the allowable interest, and the permissible fees. So, go ahead, Mr. barely making it middle class. Miss that payment by a single day, and you will be paying off that credit card for the rest of your life at 24 percent interest, plus fees. And you thought only coal miners got buried owing their souls to the company store."

Maureen in Massachusetts: "The longer it takes you to pay off a credit card, the more money the company makes. Even if you file for bankruptcy, the credit card companies wrote the new laws, so they still get their money."

Craig in Tampa writes: "Since our politicians have put us out of jobs and homes, many Americans now have bad credit. Remember this when your auto insurance bases your rates on this little fact, better than red-lining, and legal for the insurance companies. Don't bother to complain to your senator or congressman. They don't care."

Peter in British Columbia: "Many of the people with poor credit end up paying the minimum payments or less and get charged huge interest and over-limit fees. Then they get another card to pay off the first, then a third to pay off the second, so on and so on."

Eugene in California writes: "I guess credit card companies are pursuing folks with bad credit because they have already sucked everyone else dry. There's no one to constrain them in Washington, so the credit card interest rates have risen under the Bush administration, and the greedy bastards are out for that last drop of blood" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.

Jack will be back shortly.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: There's a desperate search under way for the wealthy adventurer Steve Fossett. The record-setting pilot and balloonist is missing a day after taking off from a private airstrip in Nevada.

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